As Fort St. John braces for a possible labour strike, the union representing city workers is looking to convene a meeting this week to learn why members struck down a new agreement that offered nearly seven per cent in wage increases over the next three years.
Last Friday’s vote on a tentative agreement between the BC Government Employees’ Union and the city saw 92 of 120 members cast ballots — with 59 people voting against the agreement, and only 33 voting in favour, according to BCGEU representative Brent Camilleri.
“The difficulty, of course, is it’s a secret ballot,” Camilleri said.
“We’re going to be discussing the next steps. I’m hoping this week, if we can get time, to meet with the bargaining committee and then we’ll have an idea of what we’re looking for.
“There’s no question though that a big component was monetary,” he said.
According to Camilleri, the three-year offer would have increased wages for city staff by 6.75 per cent through to the end of 2017 — including a 2.25 per cent raise July 1 of this year, another 2.25 per cent raise Jan. 1, 2016, and final 2.25 per cent raise on Jan. 1, 2017.
“There are a number of issues with the money, both the amount of the increases and the timing of the increases,” Camilleri said.
“The fact that the first increase didn’t happen until July 1 instead of (being retroactive to) January was a topic that got brought up frequently.”
City workers have been working without a contract since the end of 2014. Contract negotiations stalled over wages and benefits in May and both parties came to a tentative agreement on June 24.
Both Camilleri and Rashid Hasan, the city’s lead negotiator and human resources director, confirmed the city was originally looking for concessions from workers, but later withdrew them.
“The agreement that was put to the membership after mediation didn’t include significant monetary concessions,” Camilleri said.
Hasan said the city has applied to the provincial labour board with a list of essential services jobs it wants protected in the event of a strike.
This would include water and wastewater staff, along with operations support staff for the RCMP and fire department, Hasan said.
“The health and safety for our citizens is of utmost importance,” said Hasan.
Services such as garbage collection will remain ongoing as that work is contracted out, Hasan said.
Camilleri said the union has received that list, and that its bargaining committee will be reviewing the list to ensure its fair.
“We have to resolve that issue before we were to give strike notice,” Camilleri said.
Earlier this month, workers voted 97 per cent in favour of strike action if an agreement was not made.
Camilleri said workers are looking for a settlement similar to other resource communities.
Camilleri said city workers are looking for a settlement similar to other resource communities, but that the city used Lower Mainland municipalities such as Coquitlam as part of its benchmarks in negotiating.
“From our perspective, that’s an entirely different community, there’s not a lot to compare to wages to Coquitlam to wages in Fort St. John,” Camilleri said.
“Now, places like Grande Prairie, Lloydminster, and other resource communities, we think those are more appropriate comparisons and would like to see a settlement in the ballpark of those communities instead of (the Lower Mainland).”
The provincial labour board could not be immediately reached for comment.